Presbyterian foe of gay unions now a supporter

Written by Peter Smith on .

While many former opponents of same-sex marriage are now supporting it, the reversal by the Rev. Marc Benton, a Pennsylvania professor and former pastor, is an especially significant one in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

He's the one who brought about the explicit ban on such marriages in the denomination's constitution.

Now he's giving support for same-sex marriages and apologizing for the legal process he set in motion.

"And so here I am, some 15 years later, to apologize for what I did back then....for the pain and trouble I caused," he wrote to the Hudson River Presbytery in New York, of which he's a member.

As I reported today, the momentum appears decisive toward redefining marriage in the church constitution to allow for same-sex couples.

Some back story:

Rev. Benton is an adjunct professor in communication at Harrisburg Community College and York College of Pennsylvania. He served as pastor at Pennsylvania congregations and at one in the Hudson River Presbytery in New York State. As a member there, he brought a complaint against the presbytery for failing to discipline another minister for conducting a service of "holy union" involving a same-sex couple in 1998.

The result: the top court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ruled in 2000 that its pastors and churches could not be conducting same-sex commitment ceremonies if the liturgy made them look like marriages -- which the church constitution has defined as between a man and a woman. On the other hand, the court ruled that pastors could bless same-sex unions if the rite were different enough that no one would mistake it for a wedding.

Depending on how you look at it, the ruling cleared the way for non-marriage same-sex unions at a pre-Massachusetts time when such rites were cutting-edge in churches (and still would be for many). But it also enshrined the case law for the next 15 years, making it clear that gay marriages, as such, were forbidden under Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) auspices.

Until now.

The church General Assembly last summer ruled that ministers could perform ceremonies immediately in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal, such as Pennsylvania, and now presbyteries are on the cusp of allowing it church-wide.

Rev. Benton said in a formal apology to the Hudson River Presbytery that he challenged the same-sex union because he saw the authority of the Bible at stake.

"The Bible was to be taken on its face as words from God.

"That was comforting: I had read the Scriptures through at least three times, I thought that I knew the Word, that I knew God, and that I knew what He wanted. That sounds rather arrogant when I say it now. But today I realize that some of the firmness of my stand came out of fear. I had moved out of an atheistic background where life had no over-arching meaning - had no certainty for today or the future. ... I had found something solid and certain, something to hold onto in a changing and turbulent world....and I was not going to let go."

But after he left his New York parish in 2005, "God began to challenge my settled convictions," he writes.

"A woman in my congregation – one of the most sincere and lovely Christians I have ever known, died of ovarian cancer, even though literally dozens of Churches and thousands of people were praying for her physical healing. ... Her death shook me to my roots. All of a sudden I realized that I did not “know” God nearly as well as I believed I did. All of a sudden He was more mysterious than I had conceived Him to be. Thus began a long and intense struggle for more understanding: about Him, about life, and about the Bible."

From there, the story is a fairly familiar one: He got to know gay people, learned of their struggles and concluded their orientation was innate, not a choice. "Not a single one said that it was an easy road, or something they would have chosen willingly - for most of them, it was fraught with the fear of disappointing or angering their families and friends and alienation from society in general," he said.

"Secondly, I began to re-read the Bible - I mean really looking at it again. One thing that I discovered was there are many things that are “abominations” in God’s sight - they’re all through the Old Testament."

Why don't churches condemn those abominations with anything of the same vigor as homosexuality, he asked? Not to mention divorce.

"And so it became a question for me of basic fairness," he said. "If you want to apply individual passages without reference to the Bible's overall message of God's grace, do so in all cases, and not just some."





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